Yooka-Laylee racked up over £2 million in support of Playtonic’s (essentially Rare’s) dream to create a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie. It’s probably the closest thing to a third Banjo game we’ll ever get, so it’s hard to blame people for backing this project to the hilt. After all, nostalgia is a powerful thing, sometimes blindingly so.
The setup is as simple (and silly) as you’d expect. You play as Yooka, the lizard fella and by extension Laylee, the bat with the Rudolph nose. A massive Bee, called Capital B, has a book vacuum cleaner that’s sucked up an all-powerful volume and scattered the pages inside other worlds. You access these worlds by leaping head first into giant hardbacks. It’s then your job to get them back and beat the bee.
Naturally, it’s just dressing to justify the inclusion of wildly different themed levels. There are five of these worlds to explore, six if you include the hub which has its own set of collectables. Though small in number there is a good amount of variety on show. There is an ice world, a casino and a tropical island. It’s the stuff you’d expect from a 3D collectathon style game, only with much prettier graphics than back in the day.
Yooka-Laylee is a gorgeous looking game. The bright colours and varied environments are a visual treat. It’ll plonk you back into your childhood as the familiar settings kick the nostalgic part of your brain into overdrive. The character designs will get a similar response too. Yooka and Laylee’s striking green and purple combination gives them the feel of an old video game mascot. Their naturally jolly disposition also makes a welcome change to the gritty main characters we’re inundated with these days.
It’s not all good news on the graphics front though. The marsh and outer space areas are so bland in comparison to the other levels. Sure, the setting necessitates a gloomier style but they just feel so lifeless compared to the tropical opening world.What do you do in these mostly beautiful locales? Well, you collect things. Remaining true to its roots, Yooka-Laylee sends you out to collect and pretty much nothing else. Pagies will be your primary concern, you’ll need to find 100 so you can take on the final boss. They can also be used to open new worlds and expand existing ones. So essentially, you collect Pagies so you can collect more of them in different places. There’s probably a reason you don’t see many of these games anymore.
Being able to expand the world sounds interesting at first but as you progress further into the game you’ll find yourself wondering why they even did it. It’s quite odd to stumble upon a path that currently leads to nowhere or to see one that’s blocked off with a ‘coming soon’ sign beside it. It’s probably a metaphor mocking early access games, but it just feels like a needless addition.
In the early stages collecting Pagies and quills is great fun. The open world style of each level gives you freedom to choose which challenges you take on. Then, if you get bored of one place, you can hop to another and collect some there. There are a good number of different challenges like races, platforming sections and minigames to do that you’re bound to find something you like.
But after the fun stuff is out of the way the collecting becomes a bothersome grind. You’ll realise you didn’t have as much freedom as it first appeared and you’ll have to take on some of the tasks you deliberately avoided earlier. The main issue is that is that you will always receive one Pagie for doing these challenges, regardless of the difficulty or the amount of time involved. It just isn’t rewarding to get the same prize for completing a basic memory game as you do for completing a much harder platforming section.
When you’re not collecting Pagies you’ll also be gathering quills. These can be spent on getting new skills. These include invisibility, higher jumps and the ability to grab certain objects with your tongue. You start off only being able to jump and basic attack but you’ll soon have a number of tricks to play with. There’s a good amount of them to learn and they all get used enough to make them feel like a worthy purchase.The controls for these abilities are as responsive as they should be for a game that involves platforming. If you’ve played an older 3D platformer recently you’ll probably have noticed how clunky the controls are. Thankfully, this wasn’t something Playtonic felt needed to stay to remain true to the genre.
Unfortunately, there are a number of tropes here that probably should have stayed on the Nintendo 64. All of the characters talk in random sounds, as they did in Banjo Kazooie. They are incredibly annoying. Capital B and his duck sidekick, in particular, make very grating noises. There are some exceptions, Laylee’s voice is adorable but they’re largely irritating and it’s worsened by unskippable cutscenes.
They’ve also included transformations simply because they were in Banjo and they’re pretty underwhelming. The ice world sees you turn into a snow plough and sends you off to do irritating platform sections you could do more simply as Yooka. Meanwhile, the tropical level turns you into a plant where you spray other plants. Yes, really. It just feels like they’ve been shoe-horned in because they were in the older games, not because they add anything to this one.
Continuing the theme of getting bogged down in nostalgia, Yooka-Laylee suffers from a 3D platformer staple, the camera. Now to be fair, it’s a far cry from the problems back then. Doing most platforming sections or just pottering about the levels is fine. However, there are a number of times when the camera will abandon you at crucial moments.This is most notable when you unlock the ability to fly. This ability is cumbersome enough already, with the controls feeling incredibly heavy and lacking the precision I’d hoped for. The camera doesn’t like to be tampered with when you’re airbourne, refusing to let you swivel it around so you can see where you’re trying to go. It gets incredibly frustrating.
So with all this irritation is there anything left to push you towards the ultimate showdown with the bee? Kind of, the writing is pretty enjoyable. With frequent fourth wall breaks and references to gaming, both old and new, it’s all unashamedly silly but good for a giggle.
Sadly, the worst character in the game is Yooka. He’s painfully ordinary and exists to balance for Laylee’s ruder, and infinitely more entertaining personality. She will often insult any new character she meets, usually through a scathing pun and even bemoans a lot of the games more annoying features. It makes her much more memorable than her lizard companion.
In many ways, it’s hard to criticise Yooka-Laylee. It was made for fans of old-style collectathon games and it’s hard to dispute that Playtonic has delivered on that front. Banjo-Kazooie fans will find a lot to love here. The real question is whether it’s likely to attract new fans with a gameplay loop that hasn’t aged well. It starts to drag as you scramble for those extra Pagies and beyond entertaining writing, there’s not a lot to encourage you to push on, so it seems unlikely.